Care and Feeding

My Teen Takes Being a Know-It-All to New Levels

A teenage girl wags her finger.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by drbimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-year-old daughter’s summer camp spent a week on an anti-racism curriculum. Though the majority of the summer was focused on computer programming, she came away with more knowledge about systemic racism in STEM (and in broader U.S. society) than coding. Now she can’t stop “well, actually”-ing other family members and even friends out in public. It seems this curriculum presented one clear explanation for a variety of social phenomena in the U.S., and while I think the level and depth of material covered seems appropriate for 14-year-olds, my daughter doesn’t realize that she hasn’t learned all there is to know about race in America. She truly thinks she has it all figured out! I want to scream every time she pops into someone else’s conversation to say, “Well, actually, xyz,” when her explanation is neither nuanced nor particularly insightful.

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I feel like a jerk saying this about my own daughter—and I’m glad she’s speaking up!—but in addition to how uncomfortable this makes me (she’s white, and I cringe especially when she “well, actuallys” biracial members of our family), it’s quite frankly just really annoying because she takes up airtime and sucks the nuance out of conversation (I’d feel this way no matter what the subject). Whenever I mention that she should spend more time listening, continue pushing her own thinking, value the lived experiences of others, etc., she says I’m being racist by not being anti-racist (by shutting her down, I guess?). I know arrogance is part of being a teen, but how do I get my daughter to realize she isn’t a tiny MLK?

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—Annoyed by the Actuallys

Dear Annoyed,

Welcome to being the parent of a teenager. Pace yourself. You have a long road ahead of you.

First: forget about “getting” her to realize anything. She’ll get there on her own. It may take (quite) a while, but this period of being sure she knows more than anyone around her—especially her family, and most especially her parents—is likely to be time-limited. Second: I know you’re finding her teensplaining annoying, but try to be happy for and proud of her too (I mean, you can go on being annoyed, but can you make room for a little bit of pride?). She’s a white kid who has had an introduction to the notion of systemic racism that she has absorbed and is applying in all kinds of situations. Of course she doesn’t know everything! But she now knows something crucial that many (most? I’m thinking most) white kids don’t know anything about.

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If I were you, instead of telling her to quiet down and listen to her elders, or reminding her how little she knows about the world, I’d buy some interesting books she has not yet read—the nonfiction that everyone who’s trying to educate themselves has been reading, like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, Stamped by Kendi and Jason Reynolds, and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, but also novels, memoirs, and poetry (think Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, Tayari Jones, Octavia Butler, Lucille Clifton, Morgan Parker—I could go on, but this should get you started)—and leave them around the house so she can easily access them. You should read them, too. Maybe some of these books will even lead to genuine conversation between the two of you—or between your suddenly woke child and other members of your family. A conversation is always better than a “Let me tell you what I know to be true”/”Oh, yeah? Well, let me tell you how much you don’t know” exchange. As to the question of her “explaining” racism to people of color in her own family, if they are adults I hope they will be able to be both amused by her condescension and able to remind her (gently? with love?) that she is talking to them about their own lived experience. If they are other teenagers, I’m sure they’ll work this out between them. In other words: she’s 14, not 4. It’s time to let go of the reins a little. It’ll be good practice for the future.

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And finally, when it comes to just plain being annoyed that she’s “taking up too much airtime,” and you mean it when you say you’d feel the same way if she were going on too long about anything, then feel free to say, as I assume you would if the subject were one you considered trivial, “Enough. Let’s talk about something else” from time to time. But since this subject isn’t trivial and she’s on fire with it right now, I wouldn’t shut her down. I would dig in with her—and not by telling her how much she doesn’t understand, but by asking questions that demonstrate that there’s a lot you’re trying to understand too. Which I hope is the truth.

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• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding

My 12-year-old son is a great kid who is gifted in some areas (he skipped a grade on the recommendation of a psychologist) and yet immature in others. For example, he still has “blankies” that mostly stay in his room now, but he does still bring them out and carry them around the house now and then. One of the other immature behaviors he exhibits is that he’ll occasionally insist that something happened when he knows it hasn’t, like insisting we ate pizza the night before, when we actually had pho.

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This behavior also manifests itself in other ways, such as when he insists on mispronouncing a word even when we tell him the correct pronunciation, saying that it’s not the way it’s pronounced “for him.” Should we concerned? It comes across as really obnoxious, and I’m worried that this behavior might not be confined to family, and that he’s telling his teachers and his friends’ parents that they’re wrong too about things they’re objectively right about. Besides pointing out what really happened in a certain situation, or the correct pronunciation of a word, I’m not sure what to do. Or should I let it be and wait for him to grow out of it, as he presumably will?

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—No Alternative Facts, Please!

Dear NAFP,

It seems to me you’re focusing on the wrong thing. Try reframing this problem as a set of symptoms that reveal something about what your child is going through right now, instead of an irritating, “obnoxious” habit. Pointing out that he is wrong when he insists he’s right, even in the face of incontrovertible proof, isn’t going to get you anywhere. (Except possibly to a game of whack-a-mole, where whatever he is going through begins to show up in new and different ways.) No matter how frustrating you find his behavior, it behooves you as a loving parent to let go of trying to get him to stop exhibiting it and focus on why he is.

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And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I believe it’s worth having him evaluated by a pediatric psychotherapist. My non-professional opinion is that your 12-year-old may be experiencing a developmental clash between his intellectual and emotional development—not to mention that, at his age, the one-year gap between himself and his classmates is a big one. If he’s spending the bulk of his time around 13-year-olds, many of whom will already be acting (and looking) like teenagers, he may be feeling like the odd man—the odd kid—out. He may even be getting bullied at school and not telling you about it. But whatever’s at the root of this behavior—and even if it is a passing phase that he’ll grow out of—what would it hurt to have him talk to an adult who isn’t one of his parents and who has expertise you don’t? If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: therapy doesn’t have to be a last resort. It can be a useful tool. And when our children are unhappy—and what you describe is not the behavior of a happy child—why would we not make use of every tool we’ve got?

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a dear friend of 10 years, “Diana.” We were originally neighbors, but we had so much in common that we’ve stayed friends even after we both moved. We have children close in age who have known each other since they were born, and although we have different parenting philosophies, when we’re together we each mind our own kids and don’t say anything about the other’s approach to parenting.

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These days, we get together once every few months, always with our children. Diana’s daughter, “Regan,” is 8, and my daughter, “Sadie,” is 7, and Regan’s “mean girl” behavior is starting to drive me nuts. We recently went to Regan’s birthday party, and she didn’t talk to or interact with Sadie. I thought I understood why, and I explained to Sadie (then and there) that Regan had lots of older cousins she might not get a chance to see very often, so she wanted to spend time with them. Sadie found other kids to play with at the party. But then we got together to go on a nature walk and brought my 7-year-old niece (Sadie’s cousin), “Beth.”

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This time, Regan played with Sadie but wouldn’t talk to Beth, and Regan and Sadie ran ahead of her. I recognize that Sadie is responsible for her own treatment of Beth (and later, when we were alone, I had a discussion with Sadie about including everyone, and I told her that her treatment of Beth was unacceptable) but I’m wondering if I should break Diana’s and my unspoken rule and say something to her about Regan’s behavior. But what would I even say? The slights seem so minor, and we see them so infrequently, that I wonder if I should let things continue as they are … but for some reason, Regan makes my blood boil, and I don’t want Sadie thinking her mean girl behavior is okay. (Also, I think a conversation with Diana would result in nothing changing: she has said she wants her kids to learn to solve their problems for themselves, and so she doesn’t get involved in their social lives.) Still, these recent experiences have made me less excited to get together with someone whose friendship I value and whose company I have always enjoyed. What do I do?

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—Friends with a Mother of a Mean Girl

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Dear FwaMoaMG,

There is a simple solution to this problem that does not involve offering your dear friend, whose company you so enjoy, unsolicited parenting advice. Start getting together with her without either of your children. You’re allowed to have friends of your own. And Sadie doesn’t have to be friends with the children of your friends—she can choose her own friends at this point (and you don’t have to become friends with their mothers!). Just call Diana and invite her out for dinner, or for drinks. Couldn’t you both use some child-free time, anyway?

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old. They are both outgoing, generally independent kids, and if I had to place my spouse and myself someplace along the parenting style continuum, we would land near the “free range” zone. The kids spend a lot of time outside, and as a result of our lifestyle and some intentional decisions over the years, neither of them has watched TV much.

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Through her kindergarten class, my 6-year-old finished the school year with an increased exposure to popular culture. As a result, both kids started clamoring for it. We were not opposed to introducing them to age-appropriate TV shows and movies, but when we did, it ended up going really poorly. My two level-headed, brave, independent kids cannot seem to handle even a smidgeon of tension in a movie. We thought maybe the younger one didn’t understand that it was all pretend, so we tried reading the story in picture book form first and talking about it. He very clearly understands it isn’t real. It doesn’t matter. The older one covers her eyes and ears and sometimes leaves the room to avoid scenes of even mild peril. We’re talking G-rated stuff like Rio and Cars. Forget about Finding Nemo. Any tips to help them tolerate a little conflict or struggle in these movies? I’m starting to think we made a mistake by keeping them away from screens for so long. Or maybe something else is going on here? They have done OK with nature documentaries, some of which are honestly kind of brutal.

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—Is There Something Less Than G-Rated?

Dear ITSLTGR,

This was my child. She couldn’t watch Toy Story (the first one, which came out when she was very young). She couldn’t watch the Disney versions of fairy tales. She too had no experience with contemporary kids’ pop culture until she started school (it was a rude awakening); I too wondered if I should have introduced it earlier.

But looking back, I am not a bit sorry. Unlike so many of her peers, she is neither addicted to pop culture nor insensitive to violence; she’s an adult who watches less TV than anyone I know (she isn’t snooty about it; she just isn’t much interested). Which brings us to the real question: is the trouble that your kids are “too sensitive” (and I don’t think they are, given everything else you’ve said about them), or is it that you feel they’re missing out on pop cultural phenomena that their peers are passionate about? In terms of the former, I’ll confess that I cannot abide scenes of (or even intimations of) peril: I don’t watch horror films, thrillers, or action-adventure. I don’t miss them, either—I find that there are plenty of other things for me to watch. But even if your children don’t grow up to be like me—a delicate flower—I certainly don’t think it’s a big deal if they can’t abide this stuff on screen at this age. They may grow out of it and they may not. My daughter did (that is, she’s much sturdier than I when it comes to seeing disturbing/scary things on screen—but then again, as I’ve said, she mostly doesn’t bother).

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In terms of the latter, it’s true that they’ll feel excluded when their friends talk excitedly about what they’ve just seen. And it’s quite possible, especially as they get a little older, that they’ll power through watching movies that upset them so that they don’t feel left out—or only so as not to stand out—and that this white-knuckled exposure will desensitize them. I suspect that that’s what happened with my daughter, once she started going to sleepovers that featured movie-viewing and she didn’t feel she could opt out.

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Finally, in answer to the question with which you signed your letter: my own delicate flower of a small child was madly in love with the original Music Man. Likewise Mary Poppins. Even West Side Story as long as I fast-forwarded through the almost-rape-of-Anita scene and the deaths by gunshot. If she were 6 today, I’d put on In the Heights.

—Michelle

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